In spite of having spent almost $100 million since 1998 on a project to identify potentially hazardous asteroids before they can hit the Earth, NASA will not meet its goal of finding 90 percent of these objects by 2020.
Congress ordered the space agency to find and identify asteroids bigger than 460 feet (140 meters) in diameter as part of an effort to prevent and/or mitigate the consequences of an impact by objects that come within 28 million miles (45 million km) of our planet.
Such objects are known as Near-Earth Objects, or NEOs.
According to a report released by NASA Inspector General Paul Martin, “NASA’s Efforts to Identify Near-Earth Objects and Mitigate Hazards,” only 10 percent of these objects have been identified to date.
The report describes the program as poorly coordinated, not well managed, and understaffed even though the space agency has experienced a funding increase from $4 million in 2009 to $40 million in 2014 for this purpose.
“Given its current pace and resources, (NASA) has stated that it will not meet the goal of identifying 90 percent of such objects by 2020,” Martin writes in the report.
The asteroid identification program is a “loosely structured conglomerate of research activities that are not well integrated and (which) lack overarching program oversight, objectives and established milestones to track progress,” he goes on to say.
A total of 11,230 of the biggest NEOs have been found so far. This includes most of the largest asteroids but only 10 percent of the small ones, approximately 460 feet in diameter.
The report outlines five recommendations for the program. These include increasing its staff from one employee to an amount ranging from four to six, and more cooperation with other countries’ space agencies, other US agencies, and private companies.
NASA plans to unveil a new NEO detection program approximately a year from now, according to Associate Administrator for Science John Grunsfeld.
On February 15, 2013, part of a 59-foot (18 meter) asteroid exploded in Russia over the city of Chelyabinsk, injuring over 1000 people and blowing out building windows.
The NASA report states that such impacts will occur every 30 to 40 years though most will happen above oceans.
A 6.2 mile (10 km) wide asteroid is believed to have impacted the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico and wiped out the dinosaurs via resulting climate change 66 million years ago.